The Ridderzaal in The Hague’s Binnenhof looks a bit like a monumental grand café on this dreary Saturday afternoon. Invited guests sit at white-covered tables, coffee and tea are served, soft muzak is heard from the speakers. The atmosphere is one of solemn anticipation.
Today, outgoing minister Ingrid van Engelshoven (Education, Culture and Science, D66) will apologize on behalf of the cabinet for the consequences of the old Gender Change Act (better known as the Transgender Act) of 1985, which made it possible for the first time to change gender. change in the birth certificate, and therefore also in diplomas, identity and driving licenses.
At the time, the law was considered a major breakthrough in the emancipation of what were then called transsexuals, but due to the harsh conditions, the consequences were catastrophic. Anyone wishing to legally change sex had to have undergone as much physical sex change as possible (through hormone treatment and major surgery) and had to be permanently infertile. Until 2001, it was also mandatory to divorce your partner.
The law presented many trans and intersex people (people born with both male and female sex characteristics) with a very tough choice: either undergo sterilization and severe body surgery or try to live with the gender dichotomy they had. chosen and the gender (m/f) in their passport.
The law forced many trans people to sacrifice their desire to have children for their legal gender reassignment. Others, such as ethicist Mijke van der Drift, were gently forced down a path by doctors and psychologists that they had preferred only partially. The idea of ’being born in the wrong body’ never appealed to her. Van der Drift was a professional dancer, on weekends she liked to put on a wig and dress for a wild evening on army boots.
At the beginning of this century, Van der Drift reported to the gender clinic of the Free University of Amsterdam. “I remember very well that at the beginning of the process I said: I don’t want to go from one box to another. But that was all that was possible.”
It was only in 2014 that the Transgender Act was amended and a statement from an expert is sufficient to legally change gender.
In the meantime, says Brand Berghouwer, chairman of the Transgender Network Netherlands (TNN), the government has violated fundamental human rights: the right to privacy, the right to physical integrity and the right to family life.
After organizations such as TNN and the Clara Wichman Foundation had held the government liable for the suffering caused, compensation of 5,000 euros was awarded. Several speakers in the Ridderzaal criticized this amount on Saturday. Sweden paid out four times as much, as Willemijn van Kempen, one of the initiators of the proceedings against the government, recalls.
That’s not to say the Dutch government’s apologies aren’t appreciated – the Netherlands is the first country in the world to apologize for failing transgender and intersex laws.
“I stand here with a heavy heart,” says outgoing minister van Engelshoven. “Of course standards about what bodies should look like don’t belong in a law. And a law should never force a person to undergo an operation.”
Afterwards, Van Engelshoven appears to be genuinely moved. “I continue to find it inconceivable that this was decided in the Netherlands in 1985 and that it remained so until 2014.” There was no discussion in the cabinet about the penance that it has just done, the minister says. As far as Van Engelshoven is concerned, the legislation is being expanded – for example with a financial arrangement for trans people who undergo a gender reassignment. The minister would also like to get rid of the registration of the gender ‘as soon as possible and where possible’.
But Van Engelshoven is aware of the resistance that this sometimes evokes. When the NS changed the ‘dear ladies and gentlemen’ to ‘dear passengers’ in 2017, this led to angry reactions. “I am concerned about the social climate for transgender and intersex people. That is why these apologies are now so incredibly important.”
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